'Missing'- A transcript of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary

'Missing' - A transcript of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary

By Kirsten Garrett

 

 

 

 


Kirsten Garrett is a journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This transcript was previously published on Radio National Transcripts, Sunday 11 February 1996.

It is republished here with the kind consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

Background Briefing

 

'Missing'

 

READING: This was the time when the Welfare was out there looking for the kids then. There were light-skinned kids there at that time, and my Grandmother used to get all the light-skinned kids and they'd all run off into the hills - get them and hide them in the caves. And all the little dark ones would all run off in different directions. "Here's that motor car coming! Run off into the hills!" And they would put charcoal on them, to make them look dark. And this man would walk and look at them like they were some prized horse or something. He would look them over and as soon as he saw someone with a light skin, he would just grab that person, the little girl or the little boy, just grab them. And the mother would be sitting there, crying her heart out, and kids would all be put on these trucks and just taken.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Almost half of the Aboriginal people, who died in custody and were investigated by the Black Deaths Royal Commission, had been removed from their families as children. This issue, the removal of children, will mean the school history books will have to be rewritten.

 

Tens of thousands of Aboriginal children have been taken from their families, lied to, secreted away, stolen and placed as far away as possible, sometimes overseas, to break any links with their own community. They grew up close to the missionaries, ashamed of their aboriginality, without their language or their links to the past. That was the intention.

 

This is Background Briefing, and I'm Kirsten Garrett.

 

Words like slavery and genocide haven't normally been associated with Australia, but over the next year we will hear them. State by State around the country, a national Human Rights Inquiry is exposing an evil seam in Australian history.

 

Mick Dodson: Many, many, many, Australians don't know about it; it's an ugly aspect of our history that needs to be told, and it's something that we as a nation need to come to terms with. I believe the telling of the stories is crucial in part to the reconciliation process. We need to acknowledge and accept these awful aspects of our history. The point is, it's not ancient history we're talking about, these are lived experiences of people. It's not something in the distant past that we can conveniently dismiss as being - 'Well that was the bad old days' sort of thing. It's not; this is the ongoing effects of these practices which are felt every day.

 

READING: I'm afraid that my wife will commit suicide if the boy is not back soon, for she is good for nothing, only crying day and night. I have so much love for my dear wife and children, as you have for yours. So if you have any feeling at all, send the boy back as quick as you can. It did not take a long for him to go, but it takes a long time for him to come back.

 

Mick Dodson: Being an Aboriginal person, I mean it's something you know about because of your aboriginality. The stories don't really surprise me that much, I mean they're very, very painful to listen to, but I think the thing that strikes me the most is that the absolute cruelty of the practice, you know what I mean? It is devastatingly cruel to do this to a people. It's not just the individual child who was removed or their siblings that were removed, and the cruelty that that does, it's the effect particularly on the mothers. It's the cruel effect on the mothers.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Last week the Inquiry had hearings in Victoria. They took place in a community hall in suburban Melbourne: plastic chairs and a hot water urn, and International Roast sachets up the back, a straggle of journalists, public servants, church people, foster parents, lawyers and many Aboriginal people. Up front, Sir Ronald Wilson - he's Chairman of the Inquiry; and Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson and State Commissioners. And throughout the four days, people speaking to their submissions - doctors, welfare workers, and a phalanx of Victorian Government executives, and a couple of police. Out the back, behind closed doors and handwritten "Private Submission. Do not enter" signs, Aboriginal people were telling their stories, sometimes for the first time ever. Stories too personal, too damaging to others, too sensitive to tell publicly. Even the public submissions often had the main hall stunned.

 

Jane McKendrick: ... Aboriginal communities now, because it's those young people who were removed from their families in the 50s, 60s and 70s who are now having their own families, though the problem is enormous in Victoria. And I think there was further evidence that 90% of these placements of Aboriginal children broke down, so that children seemed to be sent from one foster home placement to another, or left in institutions for most of the time that they were in care. And commenting on the social effects and the personal effects on Aboriginal individuals resulted --

 

Kirsten Garrett: Dr Jane McKendrick, a psychiatrist, gave figures from the first study of Aboriginal mental health in Melbourne.

 

Ninety percent of Aboriginal people who had been taken from their families were suffering chronic depression and many had serious psychological problems. There were other figures too, from 1978. In that year Aboriginal children were being taken into care at 26 times the rate of white children. At Lake Tyers, every family had had at least one child taken in 1978.

 

Jane McKendrick: These figures don't include the so-called informal placements where children were sent to the cities or to the beaches for holidays with non-Aboriginal families, and were never returned to their Aboriginal families. And their Aboriginal families had no way of finding them.

 

Kirsten Garrett: That's extraordinary. You mean that they were sent on holidays, and to stay with non-Aboriginal families, and those non-Aboriginal families kept them?

 

Jane McKendrick: That's right. They kept the children because the trips were organised through non-Government organisations, the families often couldn't trace them. In some cases the families did trace the children some years later, but in many cases the children were just lost.

 

Kirsten Garrett: It's not only the children but the adults left behind, the families who couldn't stop their children being taken away.

 

Jane McKendrick: There are feelings of guilt and self blame on both sides, and it's commonly mothers but I suppose mothers or fathers who feel that it's their fault, that it's something they did that caused their child to be taken; and even though they know that this was an official policy and that they hadn't done anything wrong, and that their family tells them they hadn't done anything wrong, they still can't get this idea that it was their own fault out of their mind. And similarly, the child who's taken away often feels as if it's their fault, that they did something wrong, or they were ugly or something and their parents didn't want them. Even though as adults, they've been told that this wasn't the case, that it was an official policy. And I think this is because it hasn't really been acknowledged by authorities that these policies were deliberate.

 

READING: I remember the little children screaming in the motor cars. Welfare officers and the police pulling them back in the car. It must have been terrifying for little children seeing white people come and forcibly put them in the car and slam the door on them and take them away. And no parents were there at the time, to come to their rescue, and they were screaming. You can imagine the terror that went through them little children's hearts. It must have been horrifying for them, getting plucked away from their tribal environment to be chucked in an institution somewhere, with walls and stern people, with all the kindness they left behind with the old people. A lot of them were taken from out home. Some of them were never seen again. Some of them we did, years later. They'd come back home, looking for their people. And their mothers and fathers would be gone, died, broken-hearted, because they never saw their children. A lot of them never got over it; a lot of them ended up alcoholics and in and out of jail, and a lot of them turned to violence, lashing out at society. Because an Aboriginal mother's child and they loved it and they were torn away from them.

 

Andrew: At first the mothers tried to entice the children back to the camps. But that difficulty is now being overcome.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Last year, a book - "The Wailing", by Stuart Rintoul, was published. It's a national oral history documenting the effects of laws and policies right into the 70s, which attempted to "breed out the black" in Australia.

 

Rintoul: There was no more evil policy this century than the taking away of Aboriginal children from their families, and the wounds that that left in Aboriginal society - both the wounds for individual people and the collective scarring for the Aboriginal people - that's something which has flowed through into all of the social problems which we see now. This is my hope for this Inquiry, that by addressing fundamental emotional issues like the taking away of children, we can then start to address what's happened subsequently.

 

READING: The opinion held by the authorities is that the problem of the native race, including half-castes, should be dealt with in a long-range plan. Ultimately, the natives must be absorbed into the white population. To achieve this end, we must have charge of the children. In Western Australia, we have power to take any child from its mother at any stage of its life. Our policy is to send half-caste girls into the white community, and if she comes back pregnant, our rule is to keep her for two years. The child is then taken away from the mother and sometimes never sees her again. Thus the children grow up as whites, knowing nothing of their own environment. The mother goes back into service so it doesn't really matter if she has half a dozen children.

 

Mick Dodson: Genocide is not just the physical destruction of a people. And Australia signed the Genocide Convention, I think that was in 1949. But genocide includes the forced removal of children from one group to another group. And the best answer, according to the authorities, depended on their being de-Aboriginalised, if you like, and made into non-indigenous people, made into white fellas if you like. That became official national policy in I think 1937, and it was the official policy up until - well in some jurisdictions up until the mid-80s.

 

Kirsten Garrett: The appalling truth is that it was the churches that practiced these evil policies. Not all of the churches all of the time, there are of course exceptions. But where did the policies to take the children away from the communities originate?

 

A former Executive Officer of the Anglican Social Responsibilities Mission in Western Australia, Stephen Hall.

 

Stephen Hall: Well it's hard to know which led which, but I think the Government policies of assimilation, and the missionary vision which grew out of a fervour that saw the great stories of the missionaries in Africa and China and those kinds of things, were stories that were around. But also there was the view of missionaries - it wasn't just to Christianise or evangelise, but it was to make Aboriginal people more like us, which immediately laid them to falling into the trap of the assimilation policies of the day and being colluded and co-opted into that.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Yes, because the point's been made to me a couple of times that the churches were only carrying out Government policy, they were not in a sense responsible. But at that time there was much less of a gap between church and State.

 

Stephen Hall: There are two answers to this question: One, yes they were just delivering Government policy, but they weren't doing it blindly, and the question of how they got into that position is something that needs to be addressed in the issue of Church and State. But the other thing is that as you say, Church and State were much closer then, and I actually think that people who were active in Church circles, were also active in government circles and to a degree there would have been people who were driving that policy who were active church leaders and active people in churches. So the links, I think, were very close.

 

Kirsten Garrett: The National Council of Churches to which every church belongs except the Lutherans and the Baptists, has written to the Inquiry, saying it will co-operate fully. But the Council says it will need outside funding to do so because the documents are scattered all over the country and not collated. It is beyond the present means of the National Council of Churches to get the documents together in a useful form, and it is unlikely that the churches will be able to make any formal submission before the Inquiry finishes at the end of the year.

 

Last year, Stephen Hall prepared a discussion paper for the Anglican Church in Western Australia. Stephen Hall is concerned that there may be sensitivities in some areas, of some of the church bureaucracies.

 

Stephen Hall: If churches are serious about justice, if churches are serious about reconciliation between Aboriginal Australia and non-Aboriginal Australia, they would have to face up to this issue fairly and squarely. I'm cautious though, because I know that there's all kinds of history there that some people might not want to uncover, and I'm also very aware of how some churches responded to all the matters raised with the British child migration and institutionalisation, and they were very reluctant to address issues there, and this is a far bigger issue affecting far more children and people of course who are now adults.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Is there a fear in the churches that the things that will be uncovered might be things like sexual abuse or cruelty, or just policies that are no longer tenable?

 

Stephen Hall: Some of those issues have certainly been highlighted in the stories of some children that were institutionalised in church institutions; sexual abuse by staff or children of staff in some situations, I think that's an issue, but also they were very harsh, strict regimes, and that's fairly well accepted now that they were, and of course some churches may have difficulty facing up to that. And of course there is the whole question of the moral framework within which those institutions operated.

 

Kirsten Garrett: The moral framework of the churches is under scrutiny. Their practices reflected the paternalism that has been prevalent in all British colonies.

 

Stephen Hall: It's difficult to talk about the church as a homogenous thing because as you said, there were all kinds of denominations and missionary societies and organisations involved, and to say the church did this, or did that, is very difficult of course because different things were done in different places and in different ways. But yes, I think the church did fall into the trap of assimilation into the idea that the Aboriginal race was dying out and that Aboriginal people's blackness would be bred out of them. And there are some classic speeches by A.O. Neville, who was the chief protector of Aboriginal people in Western Australia during that time, sort of saying whether it takes a hundred years or 150 years, there's no reason why assimilation won't work. I mean, they talk about children being snatched and put into institutions, and I think one of the things was not just to make them more like us as far as white, but was to Christianise or inculcate them with the theological dogmas and beliefs that those missionaries and people had at that time.

And I think that mind-set is still around in some church organisations in how they deal with Aboriginal people as well.

 

Kirsten Garrett: It doesn't end there. The churches, the discussion paper says, may also have to look into what money and assets they received to carry out their work.

 

Stephen Hall: There's ample evidence around that churches and some missionary organisations that were non-denominational have profited through grants of land that were related to them running institutions for Aboriginal children. The Catholic Church in the north-west of W.A. has some significant holdings of land; the Anglican Church has lands around that were used in this practice that are still in control of the church; and benefit has been made out of those lands, and there were financial grants that were made - salaries, and all kinds of things like that - in institutions and missions that were run around the country.

 

Kirsten Garrett: When you raise these kinds of ideas in church circles, what sort of a response are you getting?

 

Stephen Hall: Well some people are quite excited and pleased that these kinds of issues are being raised, but they tend not to be the institutional people if you know what I mean - they tend to be the people who are concerned about issues and wanting them addressed, rather than the people who control the finances and the properties.

 

Kirsten Garrett: This is a real sleeper, a lit fuse. If the churches were given land that had been taken from Aboriginal people in the first place, where does that place them morally, now?

 

Lois O'Donohue is Chairwoman of ATSIC. She was removed as a child and was able to do well in the white system, though she doesn't condone what happened to her and her family. In a recent interview on SBS Television, she was asked who she blames for the policies.

 

Lois O'Donohue: Well I lay the blame of course at the feet of the mission authorities. Their prime aim of course was to Christianise the Aboriginal people, so it really is the mission authorities that I blame entirely for the removal of the children and also for their attitude towards the Aboriginal culture as being pagan and to be rooted out at all costs.

 

Kirsten Garrett: And does she feel any resentment?

 

Lois O'Donohue: No, I don't, and I don't think it's a very healthy feeling to have, because to be resentful I think, just stands in the way of moving forward.

 

Kirsten Garrett: There's an organisation called Link Up, begun in New South Wales in 1980, through which thousands of people have been reunited. Bruce Clayton-Brown, a third generation to have been removed from his family, is a Counsellor with Link Up.

 

Bruce Clayton-Brown: The problem is today as an adult, I want to have a look at my records because I was a State Ward. But I only found out that there were two kinds of State Ward: there was the government State Ward and then there was the Catholic State Ward. Anyone who wants - it doesn't matter if you're black, white or brindle - wants their records from any church group were told that they were never kept, they've only kept cards. In my research on these days, we're finding out there were actual records kept. Why the church has always denied it, is beyond my understanding. The other thing is, maybe they're frightened of the ramifications because of all that stuff that's coming out about the assaults, sexual assaults - they may be hiding records because of that stuff because it just brings more bad light.

 

The other thing is, it's very important especially to single people who grew up in Catholic homes have their records, because they may have other brothers and sisters who were in there at the same time and were taken or moved, and also maybe the only place we can actually find their real name. So what the Inquiry has done, and also the Department of Community Service, with Link Up, and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, are asking the church to please open up their files. It's important that we are allowed access on behalf of the clients for the Human Rights hearing, and also for our needs, Link Up needs, because there's a lot of history there that's still to be undone and then to be re-fixed.

 

Kirsten Garrett: You said earlier that there's some concern that some church groups might destroy the files because of what they contain, or what they might open up.

 

Bruce Clayton-Brown: Well, some may - from my own point of view - may want to destroy them because of what's contained in those files. A church is supposed to be a safe place, a place that is a caring place and a loving place. But in reality when you see stories about kids coming out and talking about what happened to them in other churches, it does, I believe, put the churches in the situation where they're worried what their images may be tarnished because of what's in the files.

 

READING: I can remember clear as anything, running along and skipping and playing in the water, and sitting under a tree and eating, and then coming along. And then I remember the missionary taking me from my grandmother, and she was crying her eyes out and I was screaming. They were only going to take my older sister because I was too young. I wasn't even five. But because I was light-skinned, they decided they would take me as well. I think that broke my grandmother's heart. She thought she was just taking my older sister, and she found out she had to give me over as well. I was screaming and yelling and fighting. My sister was a full-blood Aboriginal.

 

READING: I was put into a white orphanage at the age of three, and as the only Aboriginal child there, except for my brother. I was certainly singled out. For example, we were being taught history, they'd talk about the explorers coming down the Murray River and being attacked by the hostile blacks, and of course everybody would then glare at me, and I'd try and slide under the seat and look as small as possible. I didn't know what an Aborigine was. So I've had this thing bottled up within me for almost a lifetime. I had this chance in 1979 to find my mother's people, and it was just like throwing off chains. My soul was free.

 

Kirsten Garrett: And where are people's files, the documents that fill out these stories? Names, dates, events, reasons? Getting the documents, and there are thousands and thousands in boxes and cabinets around the country, is vital to the Inquiry. The Commissioners don't have power to subpoena State Governments. The Inquiry must rely on goodwill and co-operation.

 

At the hearings in Victoria this month, The Victorian Government put in a submission an inch thick, and sent along a lot of people in suits and two policemen. From the audience the Victorian delegation seemed defensive and keener to do a PR job on how good things are today, than to give a lot of information on what happened 20, 40 years ago. Everyone's a bit nervous, they may after all be giving up incriminating documents that could be used in evidence in compensation cases. Some questions were taken on notice, some promises about access to documents were made, but not always.

 

WOMAN'S VOICE "... the churches were involved from a very early stage.

 

MAN'S VOICE Could I ask whether it's known how many - or roughly what numbers of children might have been separated during those ten or eleven years of the operation of the protectorate, or whether the Government is able to take on notice looking into those sorts of details.

 

WOMANS VOICE No, it's not known, and we won't take it on notice, it would be too difficult, impossible. The records are extremely unclear.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Professor Peter Read has been working in this area for 20 years. He is concerned that documents may be lost or held back.

 

Peter Read: Yes, it would be quite disgraceful if that happened, and there's some evidence to think that it's happened already in some of the government departments. Sometimes, records just were thrown away because people thought well, the home's closed, so we might as well chuck the records out. In other cases, particularly I think more recently, you've had deliberate attempts to conceal the identity of fathers, for instance, fathers of Aboriginal - that is non-Aboriginal fathers of Aboriginal children, when the mother was Aboriginal, and there's been pressure placed upon State Governments - I have no evidence, but it wouldn't surprise me - if all the organisations, big and small, which were formerly in charge of raising Aboriginal children had either accidentally or deliberately lost their records. I mean, it's been said to be in Victoria, 'We don't actually know how many children have been removed, because the records are so fragmentary.' And it's absolutely tragic.

 

Kirsten Garrett: A reference there to deleting the names of the fathers, or hiding who the fathers were brings to the forefront one issue in that many young Aboriginal girls, children, were sent into domestic service as soon as they could. And there is one policy on the record in Western Australia for example, where the chief protector of Aborigines at the time said that it didn't matter how many times an Aboriginal girl got pregnant, because the child would simply be taken off herald taken into care. So it really wasn't an issue about sexual abuse in the homes the girls were sent to.

 

Peter Read: I haven't actually heard that quotation, but doesn't it make the blood run cold to hear of such a travesty of the values which democratic Australia was supposed to pursue. The callousness by which Aboriginal girls were treated when they had their children, it's just frightening, isn't it.

 

Kirsten Garrett: It's also been said by some Aboriginal men that the issue of sexual abuse of boys in church institutions is something that may never really be known.

 

Peter Read: Well it's known to the kids who went through it, who are highly traumatised people. I don't think you can confine it just simply to men either. There are Aboriginal men now who state quite openly that they were abused by female staff as well, not just by men. The bottom line is I guess that all children's institutions are open to this kind of abuse, and I suppose there's no reason to think that sexual abuse in the Aboriginal homes - boys' homes in particular - was worse than sexual abuse in other boys' homes. But that doesn't say very much. In fact it says nothing, because there's so many Aboriginal kids who have stated and begun to tremble, even before they've begun to talk, about the abuse which they received from the staff and from other people who had no business even being in the institutions. Or sometimes they can't begin to speak about it at all.

 

Kirsten Garrett: In the audience at the Victorian Inquiry was a retired welfare officer, Alick Jackamos.

 

Alick Jackamos: When the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs was abolished in 1974, all the case files dealing with Aboriginal people, going back to the 40s, I presume around the 40s, from the Protection Board, the Welfare Board, they were all shredded up.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Why?

 

Alick Jackamos: Well I didn't ask. I suppose they had no more need for them. That was the personal details of all the Aboriginal community in Victoria at that particular time. We were just told that we had to shred these files, you know. I did raise an objection to my supervisor at the time - I can't just tell you who it was - but I said, 'Why are we shredding all these files, it's got all this history on it, it's historical documents.' But they just all went in. And some of those documents would have been - some of those files, the early ones, from the Protection Board, would give details of Aboriginal people living on Lake Tyers Aboriginal Mission, and movement from there into the rural areas of Gippsland, and coming to Melbourne; what happened to their children. So they were just destroyed. Younger families today would probably have liked to see what was on those files, yes.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Some foster parents genuinely cared. Some children did live in very poor conditions. Their broken families had after all been driven to reserves or the outskirts of towns. And it's true, not all institutions were cruel. Some children did do well in the white system. Everyone has a list of well-known names of Aboriginal people who are highly educated, confident and have become community leaders. But as many as 100,000 children were removed, and each child had parents and a community. It is undeniable that for the vast majority of Aboriginal people, these policies were a disaster. Imagine if almost every non-Aboriginal family in Australia had someone, maybe four, five people, forcibly taken away to an institution.

 

Stuart Rintoul, who wrote "The Wailing", gave a submission at the Inquiry.

 

Stuart Rintoul: There has been no greater crime against Aboriginal people this century, than the taking away of children from their families. Its destructiveness has reached into every facet of Aboriginal life. It's a lingering ache in the heart of Aboriginals, an emotional savagery that has left anguish in the collective mind. One of the great causes of disproportionate Aboriginal incaceration, health problems, including alcoholism and early death. It is perhaps the cruellest obstacle to the return of land to Aboriginal people under the Native Title laws, since those who were stolen are unable to answer that requirement of uninterrupted occupation. It may be that as the nation --

 

Kirsten Garrett: Stuart Rintoul also talks of the "grotesque gallery of laws" which have governed the lives of Aboriginal people, hundreds of laws and Acts and Ordinances, Statutes. Some of our laws were taken from Apartheid in South Africa. Queensland shared a Governor with South Africa. But we took them further, and put into practice a policy of eugenics, breeding the white into the children.

 

There are trends in removals that parallel what's happening in the broad community. In the 1920s for example, more than 80% of removed children were girls. This seems to have been partly because there was a need for domestic servants, and partly to stop the girls having Aboriginal babies. It didn't matter if they had white babies.

 

After World War II, society generally became alarmed at the menace of increasing numbers of young men. Society began to be fearful of juvenile delinquents, and over the last thirty years, the number of Aboriginal boys taken from their families has been greater than that of girls. The idea was that the children would be given an education and then "absorbed into the industrial classes.” A decision could be made on the spot, about whether or not a family should come or go, a child should stay, or be taken. The justifications changed, but the outcomes remained the same.

 

Peter Read.

 

Peter Read: In Governor Macquarie's time the official justification was to take children away and raise them in the Blacktown institution in Parramatta, or near Parramatta in Sydney because 1/ they had to be Christianised and 2/ we had to demonstrate that doubters that Aboriginal people were capable of civilisation.

 

In the 1880s, the justification was 'Well there are unfortunately some people who can't look after their kids, we'll have to take away one or two to look after them.' In 19 - perhaps 15 to 1930, the justifications are much more explicit, as you said, which is "These children are a positive menace to the State. We must remove them and raise them in institutions so that they will cease to regard themselves as Aborigines and it may be in the children's benefit, but the real reason is that we have to put an end to this menace to the rest of Australia." In the 1950s, the legislation is still much the same but it now has a different clothing which is "Well some mothers can't look after their children very well, and we do know the benefit of the mother-child bond, therefore we'll have to place them with other mothers." But there's just as many kids taken away in the 1950s as there were taken away in the 1930s.

 

Kirsten Garrett: The tick-tack between Church and State, who had the power, sent on over the years.

 

Peter Read: There is a gradual overtaking of the church organisations by the State. A good many of the children's institutions, even from last century, began as church institutions and missionaries were certainly complicit, more than complicit, in removing children, but they ran into financial difficulties of various sorts. And you can see the State reaching its tentacles into all sorts of formerly non-government institutions which is going on from the 1880s, but even institutions started in the 1950s to remove Aboriginal children, are being taken over by the State in the 1960s. Because of all sorts of reasons: sometimes the church gets embarrassed by what it's done.

Is the church complicit? Yes, there's no doubt that it is, but to be fair to them I'd say no more so than the rest of the non-Aboriginal population. I mean, everyone's complicit, everybody almost - there are a few heroic exceptions - but almost everybody thought 'Well look, even if the kids are being taken away, it's in their interests, and basically, look, we don't like Aboriginal children starving or beggars or adults who are drunk on our streets in the country towns. Look, it's actually a bit better for everybody if we do this.' Church complicit? Sure, but so are we all.

 

Kirsten Garrett: In last December, the Inquiry went to Tasmania and heard there from foster parents, a Minister of the Uniting Church, very co-operative government officials, and Aboriginal people, of course. Annette Peardon is the Tasmanian Human Rights Commissioner.

 

Annette Peardon: There was in particular one man who - and it was very difficult for him to tell his story - but he was always searching for somebody in his family, and he never ever got to meet his grandmother. He recalls seeing her eye through the latch of a gate. He believes that his grandmother made attempts to come and see him but because of her not being allowed to actually visit, it was her way of trying to contact her family.

 

Kirsten Garrett: There are tens of thousands of stories.

 

Annette Peardon: Yes, there was a family of eight children, and this particular person being the eldest of the family, used to care for his brothers and sisters on occasions that his mother used to go shopping. On this particular day, she had gone shopping. He was inside with his brothers and sisters; a knock came on the door and he didn't ask who it was, they didn't say who they were, they just said, 'We've come to take you to your mother.' He was asked to dress his brothers and sisters, and there were two very, very young children there whom he had to wake up. He said he recalls checking the babies' nappies to see that they were dry, they were then taken to a hospital where they were kept for several days and then flown out to Launceston and placed elsewhere. There was one younger brother, whom he was spending time with - they were in one home together for a period of time. And then people came and wanted the eldest person and he asked if his younger brother could come. The response was no, because he was too weak and 'You are the strong one; we will take you.'

 

Kirsten Garrett: And there were eight children in this family who were all taken. Was there any information about why?

 

Annette Peardon: There has never been any information as to why that particular family was taken, or the majority of the Aboriginal children that were removed from their families. Some have required files and we're led to believe that there were third parties involved.

 

Kirsten Garrett: What do you mean by that?

 

Annette Peardon: Well this person is saying - and he said in his submission - that prior to that, his mother had had an argument with a friend, and actually said 'Next time you leave the house, it'll be lookout for you!' So when the mother had gone shopping, he believes within his mind that the friend had rung somebody and in turn, the police turned up at the door and removed all the said children.

 

Kirsten Garrett: On the islands around Tasmania, the Welfare came in by plane.

 

Annette Peardon: On Cape Barron Island and Flinders Island of course, the only way in is by plane. In one case, there were three children - two brothers and a sister - sitting in the schoolroom, and the Welfare arrived by plane, actually went in to the school after speaking to the non-Aboriginal schoolteacher, and literally picked that child up, screaming from his chair. It was said that there were a couple of elders that were asked to help take this young child to the airport and they refused. So the child was carried out to a motor bike, put on the motor bike and was taken to the airport, screaming and was placed on a plane and brought out to Tasmania.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Once again, are there no records, or are there records that show why, what was the story behind that?

 

Annette Peardon: The story that we've learned and from some files, the charge was neglect for most mothers that lost their children, or the children were actually taken from them, and the charge was neglect. I myself was removed from Flinders Island with my brother and my mother, who's now deceased, was actually in prison for three months hard labour for neglect of children.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Do you think that there was any validity in that?

 

Annette Peardon: No, I certainly don't. There were times that things were hard on Cape Barron Island and Flinders, but there was a unity of the community.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Annette Peardon, the Human Rights Commissioner for Tasmania.

 

The threat of children being taken away kept the Aboriginal communities fearful, ashamed and obedient. The anger came out, not politically, but in alcoholism, depression and domestic violence.

 

Over the next six months, the Inquiry will travel all over the country. It has to trace all past laws and practices and policies that resulted in children being separated from their families by compulsion, duress, or undue influence. The past and continuing effects of separation are to be investigated, and what should be done in response. This includes the justifications for and nature of any compensation - quite a lot for a handful of people, a tiny budget and only twelve months.

 

The issue of compensation is the most sensitive. The Inquiry has to find the kinds of principles that might be involved in deciding what compensation, if any, is due.

 

WOMANS VOICE ... the Victorian Government did deal with it. The Victorian Government has not formed a view on the case for compensation at this stage. The Victorian Government will be seeking advice from the Commission as to how it proposes to interpret this term of reference before continuing further. And my understanding is that you have some advice for us today on that.

 

MANS VOICE Thank you. It may be of assistance if I read onto the transcript some principles - there seven in all - and they are taken from a United Nations document. 'No. 1. Under international law, the violation of any human right, gives rise to a right of reparation for the victim. Particular attention must be paid to gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms which include at least the following:- genocide, slavery and slavery-like practices, summary or arbitrary executions, torture and cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, enforced disappearance, arbitrary and prolonged detention, deportation or forcible transfer of population, and systematic discrimination, in particular based on race or gender.' Number 2 --

 

Kirsten Garrett: Australia signed the International Convention on Genocide in 1949, and it came into effect in 1951.

 

The legal cases in Australia are mounting up fast. In New South Wales, the Joy Wiulliams case has set a precedent for the legal path for an Aboriginal person seeking compensation for removal. And in Victoria, some Aboriginal people are suing their adopting parents for breach of duty of care.

 

The High Court case in Canberra this week looks at the bigger picture, and will challenge the laws themselves. Professor Garth Nettheim.

 

Garth Nettheim: The people from the Northern Territory who are wanting to get some sort of compensation for the harm that they have suffered, if they proceeded as it is now, they would be met by the response that everything that had happened to them was authorised by the Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinance Act of 1918. So the defence that even if what was done was otherwise some sort of actionable wrong, it was covered by Statutory authority. The only way they can proceed is to try to knock over the ordinance, to say that the ordinance is and was invalid. How do you do that? The only way to do that is to say that it was beyond even the Commonwealth's power to make such an ordinance because it violated provisions in the Constitution. It's fairly well known that the Australian Constitution doesn't contain a full bodied Bill of Rights, it contains two or three scattered provisions which are rather like Bill of Rights provisions, but in the last few years the High Court has been giving some credence to the idea that there are implicit freedoms in the Constitution. There are attempts to argue other implied rights, such as implied right to equality in the Constitution, and this is one of the arguments being put up by the plaintiffs in this case, by saying that there is an implied right to equality of treatment and so therefore it was always beyond the power of the Commonwealth to treat people, Aboriginal people, differentially.

 

Kirsten Garrett: So in some cases, what happened may have been against the implied rights of the Australian Constitution. But what happened may also have been illegal in other ways. Decisions to take children away were often made by a station manager, a missionary, a policeman, acting as agents of the Protector of Aborigines.

 

Garth Nettheim: They are saying that the power given to the Protector of Aborigines to remove Aboriginal and half-caste children from their parents, to require them to go to reserves and institutions and so on, is really an exercise of judicial power which could never be entrusted to anybody other than a Court. Now they're also trying to argue, as I understand it, that there are some of the international standards relating to genocide are relevant and implicit in the Constitution, and genocide under the 1951 Convention, one of the definitions of genocide is removing children from their communities.

 

So these are some of the arguments they're trying to raise in order to knock over this ordinance, and unless they're able to do so, probably they won't be able to proceed with any action. But when you read back to the legislation, even the Statutes, and so on, let alone the way they were administered, not only in the Northern Territory, but in Queensland and other parts of Australia through the 50s, one's hair stands on end at the way in which indigenous Australians were treated by law.

 

Mick Dodson: But many of the victims are saying why don't they explain to us why they did it, you know. And then why don't they apologise? Some people have said to us privately that would help heal the hurt a lot for me if they explained to me why they did it, why we were singled out, and then if they apologised for it. But many people want an apology, and many are saying that that will satisfy us. And it is - as I said before, we like to think of our nation as a civilised society that has enabled ordinary intelligent people here - why did we do this? I can understand why people are constantly asking that question.

 

Kirsten Garrett: Social Justice Minister, Mick Dodson. The Inquiry will be in South Australia in early March, in Queensland in April, and Western Australia in May, then Canberra, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

 

READING: The man who owned Yulgilbar got sick of the Welfare coming on to the property like that, and snatching the children. So he gave three Aboriginal men of the Bunjulung Tribe a 99 year lease on this patch called The Square. The Square was fenced, and had only one entrance, a gate that was kept firmly locked at all times. Behind the gate and the fences, the three Aboriginal men walked around The Square with shotguns, protecting their families from the Welfare. Those three men were my grandfather, father and uncle. No white man was ever allowed on there, except by invitation. What I loved about my childhood was the fact that every weekend, every Friday night, we packed up and went up the river, camping, as a family.

 

THEME

 

Kirsten Garrett: That's Background Briefing for this week. Research by Suzan Campbell, Technical production, James Cadsky, Co-ordinating Producer, Linda McGinness, and Executive Producer Jeune Pritchard. I'm Kirsten Garrett. The stories came from the books "The Wailing" and "Murawina" and the readings were by Glen Shea and Lydia Miller.

 

 

Background Briefing is broadcast at 9.10 every Sunday morning and repeated at 7.10pm the following Tuesday, on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network of ideas.

 

 

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Bringing them home: The 'Stolen Children' report

 

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